Painting Digital

Preston Sullivan Portrait

While oil paint has to be my favorite overall medium (I relish its malleable qualities) I also enjoy working with other creative materials: watercolor, pastels, acrylics and the newest creative medium in my paintbox, digital.

Having spent much of my commercial career as a chief creative office in the video game industry, digital creative tools aren’t at all new to me. I first began creating digital images on a Commodore 64 desktop computer in the middle 80s by programming sprites in Commodore Basic. Prior to this, as an animation director, I was directing the creation of digital imagery, as part of television commercials, through a technician on high end online video paintbox systems, like the Quantel and DiVinci systems.

But I didn’t think of using any of the available digital art tools for fine art until Apple’s iPad showed up on the scene in 2010. Once I got a hold of my first tablet and a copy of the Brushes app I began fine are experiments.

Farmer Sketch
Layout sketch created on the iPad using Sketchbook Pro.

When I frequented my first Yosemite Western Artists live model session in 2013, I’d never before visited their historic Gertrude Schoolhouse headquarters and had no idea what facilities were available to artists there. So, I showed up with nothing more than my iPad, figuring I could stand and create on it, no matter what the limit of space or facilities. Working among other artists using traditional mediums, my goal was to use my digital tools (this time working in the

Soil Tiller Image
Final digital iPad portrait.

SketchBook Pro app) to create a portrait following a procedure similar to the one I employed with oils: layout drawing, monochrome wash underpainting, final development of the entire canvas with opaque color, working dark to light.

I’ve found I often get a bizarre, if not hostile reaction to my digital paintings. “It’s just Photoshopped,” is a common statement. While on face value this comment would not appear to be any kind of judgement of the work, I’ve realized, over time, that the critic is implying that I simply uploaded a photo into Photoshop and used one of the many available art style filters to make it look like a painting. While using those filters is a fun exercise and can deliver amazing results, MY goal is simply to use digital tools as another painting medium, not to cleverly process photographs I’ve taken.

Preston 01 Image
Underpainting from live model.

To squelch those doubters who don’t believe digital art can also mean original art, here are images of one of my digital paintings in different stages of development.

preston photo
My reference photo of the model.

Working on my iPad in the Sketchbook Pro app, I began with a drawing and underpainting from the live model, during one of Yosemite Western Artist Friday live model sessions. While there I took a reference photo to work from later, back in my studio, after the model session was over.

Preston 02 Image
Forms more defined, I realized his eyes were too low and moved them up.

Once I had more of the forms defined, I realized his eyes were too low, that he had too much forehead. This type of problem often goes unnoticed in the drawing and under painting stage, only showing up when the forms are more defined through the addition of proper opaque values and color. One of the great advantages of digital painting is the ability it offers the artist to easily edit their paintings at any stage of development. To correct the eyes, I simply selected them with the selection tool, copied and pasted them in their proper location and touched them up to fit with the surrounding area.

Digital tablets add amazing portability to artists. You carry a full art studio along with you in one of these devices, an unbelievable convenience when traveling.

Working digitally isn’t all advantages, though. A huge down-side is that it’s difficult to add refinement while viewing the entire painting. Instead I end up zooming into the area I’m working and then back out to see the results in relation to the whole. This need to constantly zoom in and out of your image, while you work, is a true annoyance. With analog painting using my long-handled brushes and maul stick, I refine while taking in the whole…a much nicer way to work.

The biggest disadvantage of digital painting is that your end result isn’t anything you can physically hold in your hands or hang on a wall. For that, you have to print the image. Acceptable quality prints require that your image be created at high resolution, at least 300ppi at the actual size you’re printing. This isn’t a problem, when working in Photoshop on a desktop computer, but it’s much more convenient to work on a portable tablet you can take to a model or plein air session. So far, most tablet art applications don’t support larger images at 300ppi, limiting your printed output to something like 8″ x 10.” The only current exception I’m aware of is the ArtRage App, which actually creates a resolution independent file of your work. While your image saving options are limited to the same small print size within the tablet application, ArtRage boasts that parring the tablet version with their $90 desktop version of application allows you to print your image as large as you’d like, at the necessary 300ppi. I don’t yet have a copy of the ArtRage desktop application, so haven’t been able to see if it truly works. I’ve also heard rumors of applications that do a great job of enlarging the small files for printing, without degrading the quality of the image, but haven’t yet tried any of these out, either.

If you haven’t given digital painting a go and have access to a desktop computer or tablet, you owe it to yourself to try it on for size!



2 thoughts on “Painting Digital”

  1. Thank you for opening my eyes to the possibilities of digital drawing. As an oldster, I have been hesitant to explore the medium. Do the two programs you mentioned come with tutorials?

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